By Peter Hoare
Ah, emo — perhaps the most polarizing word in all of rock n’ roll.
While the instances in which we now hear the word are few and far between, 10 years ago, emo was, quite simply, massive. It was an odd time in the music world: In the wake of the new millennium, the nookie-fueled flame that was nu metal had rapidly begun to lose its flicker and its cool factor. Radiohead was starting to shift toward a more experimental sound, losing some mainstream melody in the process. Creed was, well, Creed. And while gargantuan rock mainstays like Foo Fighters, Blink 182 and Green Day were of course enjoying continued success, suburbia demanded something new.
In the early- to mid-2000s, high school students all over the country began embracing new bands, a new style and a new sound, spreading emo’s popularity like a virus. In the ’90s, the unabashed angst of grunge once helped to define a generation. And whether rock purists care to admit it, to an extent, the same could be said for emo, which largely embraced the ever-relatable notion of youthful heartache as opposed to disenfranchised revolution.
We started to see mainstream emo at the start of the millennium with Dashboard Confessional’s The Swiss Army Romance in 2000. That same year, Vagrant Records put out Designing a Nervous Breakdown, the incredible debut full-length record from Lawrence, Kansas’ The Anniversary. Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American came out in 2001, along with Brand New’s debut Your Favorite Weapon and Saves The Day’s Billboard-charting Stay What You Are.
And make no mistake about it, these were all wildly successful records. Some went gold, others even went platinum — a stat even more impressive considering this was well into the file-sharing, Napster/Limewire era. And commercial viability aside, these albums meant something to die-hard fans. Lyrics from some of these songs weren’t only quoted on countless kids’ Live Journal pages on a nightly basis, but are also now etched onto some fans’ skin for eternity.
If you don’t think someone out there has a tattoo that reads, “You could slit my throat, and with my one last gasping breath I’d apologize for bleeding on your shirt” — from Taking Back Sunday’s “You’re So Last Summer” — you’re crazy.
And then there’s pop-punk. In terms of its relation to emo, in many ways pop-punk is kind of like that cousin who’s not really your cousin, the kid you call your cousin even though he’s really just your mom’s best friend’s kid. Pop/punk bands of the time — the All American Rejects, Midtown, Good Charlotte, All Time Low, Yellowcard, etc. — often got lumped into the emo pile, enjoying just as much success as their more traditionally emo brothers-in-arms.
But just as quickly as the word emo entered the pop culture lexicon, it soon took on a negative connotation, as if a band being called “emo” was the equivalent of Hester Prynne being branded with a scarlet A. Bands like the Anniversary would have preferred to be labeled as alternative or indie rock, which, in the eyes of many fans, defined their sound far more accurately than the often-ambiguous emo label.
According to former Anniversary frontman Josh Berwanger, who now performs solo, the term “emo” was always rather confusing.
“My drummer Janko and I always mocked the word, because we never really understood it. I still don’t understand it,” Berwanger said. “I think I can understand why we were considered it, I guess, but we listened to Motley Crue as opposed to Jimmy Eat World.”
After a while, the music began to attract a new — but more importantly, young– fanbase. These were children who not only loved the music, but who also started to love the word itself. Young emo kids began calling themselves emo kids, which led to older emo kids who never copped to the label rejecting it that much more.
When these skinny-jeans-clad kids started getting dropped off at Warped Tour in their parents’ mini-vans, those who were years into the scene — emo veterans, if you will — began to vehemently resent it. Kids who grew up skateboarding while listening to Jawbreaker were now seeing Avril Lavigne “Sk8er Boi”-inspired girls bouncing around next to them at shows. With every Hot Topic that popped up in a suburban mall, hundreds of card-carrying emo supporters seemed to denounce their affiliation, instead choosing to support acts with a more mature look and sound, names like Queens of the Stone, Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse or Vampire Weekend.
Those who discredited emo as nothing more than a fad were, in a sense, proven right. Less than a decade after the boom, the scene’s popularity, at least on a mainstream level, began waning.
But now that nearly a decade has passed and the word itself has been all but retired, perhaps a band may be more likely to embrace the fact that the word did, in fact, pertain to their music. During the height of the emo era, many bands loathed being referred to as such. In fact, the word itself was deemed so vile in the eyes of some that in 2007, Say Anything released a double disc with a tongue-in-cheek title speaking to the backlash – In Defense of the Genre.
But why need to defend it at all? It’s a uniquely bizarre scenario, really. In 2002, emo bands were topping charts and selling out arenas. Seriously, in 2006 Dashboard Confessional sold out the world’s most famous arena – Madison Square Garden. But by 2008 or so, many of those fans seemed embarrassed to identify themselves, often speaking in a forced, “Yeah, I used to listen to that stuff” manner.
Did emo’s boom period come at a time where society as a whole began simultaneously embracing both heartfelt rock and rapid-fire snark? If Twitter tells us anything, it’s that everyone loves making fun of everything. Was emo caught in the crossfire? Wrong place wrong time, perhaps? Or was the mockery warranted to an extent. Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolute humor in the thought of a freshly dumped, rail-skinny white kid crying guyliner tears. But to write emo off entirely, to discredit its positives – of which there absolutely are many – is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Personally, I see no reason why anyone should feel even the slightest sense of shame when discussing his or her appreciation for the music of that era. No one should be forced to add an ironic tone when saying that they just listened to a Promise Ring record. The Get Up Kids’ Four Minute Mile is start to finish rad, a sentence I just typed utterly unapologetically. Cursive’s The Ugly Organ is flawless. And who’s got two thumbs and digs Thursday? This guy, damnit!
Yes, while emo has no doubt been wounded, it’s certainly not dead.
Of course enormous acts like Paramore and Fall Out Boy are still selling out arenas, but many of their contemporaries of the mid 2000s are also still kicking their fair share of ass. This Spring Taking Back Sunday’s recently reunited lineup dropped Happiness Is, the group’s 6th studio album. It debuted at #10 on the Billboard 200. Brand New, who over the course of the last decade have shifted to a darker indie sound, routinely sell out venues in just minutes. Two recent Long Island dates sold out in less than 90 seconds. Legions of fans still go apeshit over the aforementioned Saves The Day, who dropped their highly underrated 8th studio album last year. Then there are bands like The Used, AFI and Say Anything who all continue to release records and tour successfully.
But there were also countless emo casualties. Something Corporate. Midtown. Finch. The Movielife. Thrice. At The Drive-in. Texas Is The Reason. Sunny Day Real Estate. And then, most recently, My Chemical Romance. These are all once-popular emo bands who’d sadly be included in emo’s “In Memoriam” section.
The question is: Will emo ever rise again, like the perpetually heartbroken phoenix that it often is? Because music does tend to be cyclical, the possibility certainly exists. Although, from a fans perspective, that happening might be seen as a negative. In many instances, major labels throwing astounding sums of money at some of these bands seemed to be a curse more so than a blessing.
When asked if big money contracts did, in fact, hurt the emo scene, The Anniversary’s Berwanger, at this point a music industry vet, agreed, “Major labels ruin every scene”. And while that’s a point few insiders would argue against, Saves The Day’s Conley offered another, perhaps more promising, perspective. In terms of major labels and massive money, Conley said, “Money only changes f–king posers, dude. Real artists make noise no matter who listens.”
And don’t be fooled, regardless of what you may hear on the radio or see posted on friends’ Facebook pages, many of the bands you fell passionately in love with a decade or so again, are, in fact, still making noise.